One Example of the Need for Stronger Communication Between ARPS School Committees and the Public
With thanks to Irv Rhodes
Over the past few months, I’ve had several conversations and email exchanges with Amherst School Committee member and Union 26 Chair Irv Rhodes about the Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) crisis. In addition to being my elected official, he is my neighbor, and even when I’ve disagreed with some positions and votes he’s taken, I’ve admired and appreciated how he’s advocated for transparency on the school committee.
One topic I asked him about earlier this month is whether the school committees (a term I use to include both the Regional School Committee (RSC) and Union 26) could have placed former superintendent Mike Morris on administrative leave after he abruptly returned from medical leave on July 13, 2023. I’d been very confused by contradictory statements in the news on this point. Today, it strikes me as a crucial matter to publicly resolve, given that one of the questions the Town Council has considered asking potential appointees to the Amherst School Committee is: “What is your understanding of the legal constraints about what school committee members can and can’t do in situations involving Title IX investigation?”
Teasing Out Contradictory Statements
On the one hand, a public-records request reveals that former RSC Chair Ben Herrington sent an email on July 14, 2023 to the entire RSC (potentially in violation of the Open Meeting Law) stating in part:
“…it is my opinion that placing Dr. Morris on administrative leave would not be the most appropriate act right now, nor would it be the best course of action for the district as a whole. I recognize that there is significant pressure to do so and that my opinion does not constitute the opinion or direction of this body.”
Based on this email, Herrington apparently once believed that placing Morris on leave was under the jurisdiction of the school committees amidst the Title IX investigation, even if he felt doing so would be the wrong move. He asserted an opposing position about school-committee authority (after he resigned from his elected position) during a radio interview with “Talk the Talk” on WMHP, when he claimed that the school committee had no authority to place the superintendent on administrative leave.
Although I hadn’t yet seen Herrington’s July 14 email, I was genuinely confused when I heard him make this statement on the radio—in part because I know that school committees in Lexington and Saugus, Massachusetts have placed superintendents on administrative leave during the past year. I could only conclude that Herrington’s comments during the interview weren’t a matter of state law, but of splitting hairs. As former school committee member Rick Hood stated in a comment on the Indy, “The RSC could not put Morris on leave, but RSC + Union 26 could, just as those two are the ones who hire and fire him.”
As early as July 15, Amherst School Committee member Jennifer Shiao advocated for a meeting to “discuss the superintendent.” So, it seems that while the RSC alone couldn’t have placed. Morris on administrative leave, Union 26 with the RSC could have done so, but the former chairs, Demling (Union 26) and Herrington (RSC), chose not to call a meeting to consider the question.
Irv Rhodes Weighs In
On September 5, 2023, Irv Rhodes confirmed this point in an email to me, stating for the record:
“We could have put the superintendent on administrative leave. He might have fought such a move, but we certainly had the authority to do so. That our authority to take this action might be challenged on a legal basis does not mean that we have no authority to act. Others may disagree, but this is my opinion. In fact, lawyers on both sides might disagree. The RSC did not choose or not choose to place Mike on Administrative leave. It was never considered, nor was it ever a topic of any school committee meeting. Nor was it proposed by any of the Chairs. When I brought it up as a possible alternative in our meeting to approve the mutual separation agreement, the attorney indicated that this or any other option would not be able to be discussed. Please see the minutes.”
I haven’t asked Rhodes about Herrington’s July 14 email, which clearly did (to paraphrase) “propose the topic.” And, of course, placing Morris on administrative is now a moot point since he and the school committee(s) reached a six-figure mutual separation agreement in August—with members Rhodes, Shiao, and Thomas Fanning opposed, while the other six members of the committees (Demling, Alison McDonald, Anna Heard, Sarabess Kenney, Herrington, and Margaret Stancer) voted in favor. But the need for greater clarity and communication between the school committees and constituents remains—on particular issues around school committee powers and responsibilities, and others related to the crisis.
A Breakdown in Communication Around the Title IX Report
Most urgent, I believe, are questions around the yet-to-be-completed Title IX investigation, which, according to Herrington’s July 14 email is quite limited in its scope. Those limitations he cited included that Morris and Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham were not targets of the investigation. This fact was known to the RSC at least as early as that email and begs the following questions as I consider the breakdown in communication between the RSC and the public over the past few painful months and how to avoid such tumult and strife in the future:
- How did those who denounced the public’s “rush to judge and condemn [Morris] without a complete set of facts” (to quoteDemling’s statement after the mutual separation agreement passed) expect the public to learn “a complete set of facts” when they ignored the APEA’s call for a separate inquiry and knew the Title IX report wasn’t targeting Morris’s role in allowing the dire circumstances at Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS) to fester for over a year?
- Did they believe Maxine Oland’s public comments of May 16 and August 23 and her letter in the Gazette and Indy in which she detailed how Morris failed to respond to her repeated requests for help since September 2022 (not to mention the statements of others who came forward with their own experiences)?
- If they did believe Oland and other families, why was that belief not enough to consider administrative leave for Morris, on par with action taken by the ARPS administration to place his subordinates (the assistant superintendent and three ARMS guidance counselors) on administrative leave?
- Given the contents of Herrington’s July 14 email, what more could the RSC have shared with the public crying out for equity, accountability, and transparency between the May 16 meeting when Morris went on medical leave and the August 17 meeting around his mutual separation agreement?
Untenable Uncertainty About Our Irreplaceable Children
To be clear, I don’t believe past or present school committee members acted (or failed to act) out of callous lack of care and concern, or from deep-seated transphobia or homophobia. I think it’s likely there was a lack of courage, and an attendant hope that the people crying out for help and information would just…go away, trust the process, and wait. If I am correct in naming it, that hope was misplaced given the limitations of the Title IX report and especially because, as The Graphic’s headline in April proclaimed, the situation at ARMS was a matter of “life or death.” From my vantage point, tensions have risen so high and divisions so deep in our community because it often felt like screaming into a void when attempting to engage elected officials around the dire, life-threatening circumstances facing queer youth at ARMS.
On July 28 I participated in a rally outside of ARMS and the ARPS district office, at which roughly 80 community members gathered to ask the school committee to call a meeting and call a vote on placing Morris on administrative leave. One of the most powerful things I heard that day was the last word of a chant directed to queer kids: “You are loved, heard, believed, fabulous, and irreplaceable.” Irreplaceable. As anyone who has lost a loved one to death by suicide, or who has come close to such a nightmare can attest, the irreplaceability of a beloved in danger of, or lost to suicide, is the heart of the anguish that sits in one’s chest amidst the terror. When that anguish and fear were expressed and then too often met by school committee members with form emails, perfunctory thanks during public comment, or absolute silence, tensions and anger mounted as the new school year approached and the vice grip of fear tightened.
What were so many of us afraid of? I’ve done a lot of soul searching and reflection on this question. I don’t believe I was “trapped by certainty” as the writer of a piece in the Gazette speculated about the polarization in Amherst around this very difficult moment. Rather it was uncertainty that led me to try to engage with the school committee around the question of administrative leave. These uncertainties were untenable: I could not hear and believe Oland’s story, and then wait, and say…nothing.
First, I was uncertain of student safety. I know all too well that we parents can’t protect our children from all harm, but I do want to be as certain as possible that adults in their schools will help them when and if harm occurs. I feared that if LGBTQIA+ youth continued to experience bullying and gender-based discrimination that was ignored, minimized, or otherwise unaddressed by those with power to intervene, suicidal ideation could lead to death by suicide of one or more of our community’s irreplaceable children.
It follows that I was uncertain that if they occurred again, incidents of life-threatening transphobic and homophobic bullying and gender-based discrimination would not be quickly halted in the new school year at ARMS if Morris remained in his position. I read his plan to ensure that all ARPS students would have “a safe, positive environment in which they can learn and thrive as their authentic selves” and then learned that the bulk of the ideas in this plan came from parent Maxine Oland, who had been asking for their implementation for nearly a year while her child suffered. My uncertainty in Morris arose not because I thought he was a “villain,” or transphobic, or callous, but because his actions and inactions had broken my trust in his effectiveness.
And third, I was uncertain of some school committee members’ commitment to transparency with their constituents. I feared that some of our elected officials would continue to tell us to wait and trust systems that seemed downright inadequate in their abilities to facilitate civic engagement and to protect vulnerable children.
A Need for a Formal Mechanism to Facilitate Communication Between the Public and the School Committee
I don’t fault any individual school committee member, past or present, for the breakdown in communication that occurred over the past few months since there exists no formal mechanism to facilitate greater transparency with true opportunities for back-and-forth communication. I understand the enormity of my request for such transparent interaction and appreciate that elected officials with full lives outside of their service, and with very low stipends (if any), do not have endless time to respond to each individual query, comment, or complaint. Perhaps, as others have suggested, ARPS needs an ombudsperson. In the absence of such a position, I am very grateful for Jennifer Shiao’s blog and responsiveness, and for Rhodes’ responsiveness, as well.
As we’ve sadly experienced, without stronger communication, an information vacuum ensues, frustration and desperation mount, and misinformation can gain a foothold. Peggy Matthews-Nilsen’s letter to the Indy on September 8, 2023, voiced much the same concern regarding the specific point of school-committee authority to place Morris on administrative leave, after she heard Herrington’s comments on the radio claiming the absence of such power and before his contradictory July 14 email was made public. Her letter prompted me to listen to the interview and to then contact Rhodes myself. I hope his response to me above provides others with some clarity on that important point. I also hope that new Amherst School Committee members—appointed and elected—will share his and Jennifer Shiao’s commitment to transparency, and that our town will find ways to support easier, more robust communication between the school committees and the public.
Megan D. Lambert St. Marie, is a resident of Amherst and parent of seven past and current ARPS students, dating back to 2004.